OCTOBER 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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WAIVER DRAFT FALLOUT, AND THE RON MacLEAN CONTRACT FOLLIES.

In the week prior to the opening of thei it's regular season, the lNHL annually engages in what's known as a "waiver draft", a method which essentially gives teams lacking depth in certain areas in their roster the opportunity to pluck some help for free from another club's roster.

All teams must protect a certain number of players, and submit a list to the league front office of those players that, for various reasons, won't be protected and therefore available in the waiver draft.

The rules for this venture are pretty much the same as those governing the more popular June entry draft, whereby the weaker clubs, based on their position in the standings from the previous season, get to select a player from the unprotected list. The one difference then being, they must either expose another player, or trade one to make room for the player they select.

The June entry draft is always filled with the excitement and anticipation of selecting young junior players who may one day become NHL stars, as well as the possibility of blockbuster trades being made. By comparison, the waiver draft is usually a dull affair, more like a wet firecracker compared to the fireworks of the Entry draft. Indeed, there are those in the media arguing for either a change to the way the draft is run, or a complete abolishment.

I disagree with that opinion, for despite the overall lack of pizzazz, it's an interesting process because of the drama governing the reasons why players are unprotected.

Either they're a promising youngster who's still a couple of years away from making the cut, or a team simply has no room for them on their roster and are gambling no one takes them away in the draft. In those instances, teams may not be happy about leaving a prized prospect unprotected, and hold their breath in hopes the young player is passed over.

Sometimes, a team may be over-stocked in one position and are hoping someone will take away their excess. In other instances, it could be a cost-cutting method, a means of dumping the high salary of a player who may be past their prime

This can make the waiver draft a meloncholy procedure. Players who were once valuable that end up unprotected are regarded as no longer worthy commodities. It has to be painful to not only go unprotected, but to have no club take an interest in you.

While the pickings tend to be slim, there are times when there is prime talent ready for the taking. The Toronto Maple Leafs inexplicably exposed speedy forward Steve Sullivan in 1999 in a move that Leafs GM Pat Quinn undoubtedly regrets. "Sully" was picked up by the Chicago Blackhawks and his career subsequently took off, making him a valuable player for the Windy City.

Then they was goalie Chris Osgood left exposed by the Detroit Red Wings last fall. Unable to trade "Ozzy" after signing Dominik Hasek in the summer of 2001, and unwilling to move "knows-his-role" backup Manny Legace, the Wings were forced to place him on their unprotected list. They gambled that other teams might back off from his hefty contract, thus giving Detroit the opportunity to try trading Osgood later in the season.

Instead, the once-lowly NY Islanders pounced, snatching up Osgood and giving their overhauled club the kind of quality goaltending they'd lacked for several years. As much as trading for Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca improved their roster, grabbing Chris Osgood via the waiver draft cemented the Isles first playoff berth in eight years.

WAIVER DRAFT WINNERS:

- Stephane Robidas, Defenceman, Montreal Canadiens. Selected by Atlanta, then traded to Dallas for a 6th-round pick in 2003.

There was simply no room for Robidas on a much-deeper Canadiens roster this season. Former Habs assistant coach and now Dallas Stars front office honcho Guy Carbonneau always thought highly of Robidas, and obviously had a hand in engineering the deal that brought him to the Lone Star State. It remains to be seen, however, if he'll get the opportunity for playing time on such a deep club as the Stars.

2. Mathieu Biron, Defenceman, Tampa Bay Lightning. Selected by Columbus, then traded to Florida for Petr Tenkrat.

Once a highly regarded blueline prospect, Biron has struggled to make the grade at the NHL level. Former Lightning GM and now Panthers general manager Rick Dudley traded for Biron a couple of years ago, and obviously believes the kid can become a quality defenceman. At only 22, and playing for a rebuilding Panthers team, Biron will get plenty of opportunities to develop his game.

3. Petr Tenkrat, winger, Nashville Predators. Selected by Florida, then traded to Columbus for Mathieu Biron.

The Anaheim press once compared Tenkrat to Teemu Selanne during his tenure with the Mighty Ducks. He has the tools to be a scoring star, but his attitude and lack of committment have held him back. The Blue Jackets need all the offence they can lay their hands on, so obviously they're hoping they can bring out the best in Tenkrat.

4. Francis Bouillon, Defenceman, Montreal Canadiens. Selected by Nashville.

A little guy who won over Canadiens fans with his giant heart, Bouillon was another victim of the Habs burgeoning blueline depth. Despite his small size, his quickness and puckmoving ability could land him a regular spot on the Predators blueline.

5. Ronald Petrovicky, Winger, Calgary Flames. Selected by the NY Rangers.

The Rangers obviously want more grit, and a younger version of it, given their exposing the veteran Sandy McCarthy to make room for Petrovicky. His abrasive style should make him a fan favourite on Broadway.

6. Rick Berry, Defenceman, Pittsburgh Penguins. Selected by Washington.

The Capitals needed more depth on defence, and Berry may be able to provide it. A big guy who plays a "stay-at-home" style, he could become a presence on the Caps blueline. He does make mistakes, but at 23 still has plenty of time to improve.

Losers:

German Titov, Anaheim. : Remember when he was once a scoring threat? Those days are long gone. The Ducks wish he was too.

Damian Rhodes and Norm Maracle, goalies, Atlanta: Both were expansion draft selections of the Thrashers that failed to pan out. Bet GM Don Waddell wishes he could've had a "do-over" in that draft!

Michal Grosek, Boston: He's only 27, but it seems his best days are behind him. Remains to be seen if the Bruins play him very much this season.

Rory Fitzpatrick, Buffalo: Once upon a time, he was considered a promising young defenceman with the Montreal Canadiens. He's never lived up to expectations and is a minor-leaguer for life.

Robert Dome, Calgary: I still remember how highly regarded this kid was in Pittsburgh a few years ago. After the Pens gave up on him, the Flames have taken a chance on him. Dome might still get a chance to become an NHL star, but judging by the lack of interest in the waiver draft, not many believe he has a good shot.

Tommy Westlund, Carolina. Another once-promising prospect who has struggled in the NHL. Westlund's days may be numbered on a deep Hurricanes roster.

Scott Pellerin, Dallas: I still remember the Minnesota Wild being forced to deal him because they weren't going to be able to re-sign him. Heck, if they want him back, they could probably have him at bargain basement prices once his current contract ends!

Igor Ulanov, Florida. "Iggy Pop" used to have fans cheering with his big hits, but the rest of his game leaves a lot to be desired. Having bounced from Tampa Bay to Montreal to Edmonton to New York to Florida, Ulanov is on a fast track to oblivion.

Steve Heinze, LA: Face it, Sabres management knew what they were doing when they decided not to re-sign Heinze as a free agent in 2001. The guy has struggled big-time with the Kings, and unless he improves dramatically this season, his stock will go into free-fall.

Tommy Albelin, New Jersey: I've always liked his style, but it's obvious age is catching up to Albelin. He's a sixth-or-seventh defenceman now on a deep Devils blueline. This could well be his final NHL season.

Sylvain Lefebrve, New York Rangers: The Blueshirts threw big money at Lefebrve three years ago. Now, they can't even give him away. A combination of his salary and deteriorating skills have killed his market value. Two words for Glen Sather: contract buyout.

Rich Pilon, defenceman, Sergei Varlomov and Daniel Tkaczuk, forwards, St. Louis: Injuries have pretty much ended the effectiveness of this once-bruising blueliner, who gave Isles fans something to cheer about during the dark days when there was little for them to cheer about. Varlomov and Tkaczuk, on the other hand, have yet to prove they can cut it at the NHL level. Tkaczuk, in particular, is now being considered a draft bust.

Tim Taylor, Tampa Bay: Another veteran for whom age and injuries are catching up with. Taylor still keeps plugging away and is considered a valuable leader in the Lightning dressing room. Once upon a time, however, it would've been unthinkable to see this checking forward on an unprotected waiver draft list.

Anders Eriksson and Jyrki Lumme, Toronto. The former is a once highly-touted prospect who has failed to play up to expectations. The latter is a veteran who's given his all and more over the years, but is clearly coming to the end of his effectiveness as a top-four blueliner.

ON THE BUBBLE:

Jason York, Anaheim. He's gone in two years from a well-regarded top four defenceman in Ottawa to being unprotected by an rebuilding Anaheim club. Granted, one bad season is no reason to write off York, and I must admit I was surprised to see him unprotected. This leads me to wonder: was Anaheim seeking to dump York's salary? Or are they of the opinion he's now well into the downside of his career?

Marty Reasoner, Edmonton Oilers. Perhaps the most maddeningly inconsistent player in the NHL today. Reasoner will show flashes of brilliance, then make like the Invisible Man. If he could only put it all together, Reasoner could become a star in the NHL. If he still aspires to that, this season may well be his last chance.

SOMETIMES AN INJURY IS A GOOD THING.

Both Drake Berehowsky of the Phoenix Coyotes and Brian Holzinger of the Tampa Bay Lightning were left exposed in the draft, but not because of poor play. They're both out for several weeks with serious injuries, and clubs more often than not are looking for players who can jump in and contribute right away from the waiver draft, not weeks or months down the road.

For the players and their respective teams, it's "win-win". Berehowsky and Holzinger get to stay with their clubs, who in turn can expose them with minimal risk, whilst protecting another player that would've otherwise been exposed in the draft.

A SURPRISE.

Bill Lindsay of the Montreal Canadiens was unprotected and was not drafted.

Now, granted, Lindsay is getting up in years and isn't the same player he was when he was helping the Florida Panthers march to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996.

That being said, Lindsay served notice during the Habs surprising stretch run and playoff appearance this past spring he's still a capable fourth-line role player. At $600K, he's a bargain for any club, and a valuable leader.

Maybe it's just me, but I was surprised nobody picked this guy up.

HNIC FOLLIES: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation conducted a wonderful bit of market testing this past week, with their announcement they were unable to come to terms on a new contract for Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean.

The announcement raised howls of protest across Canada, with the CBC becoming flooded with angry e-mails and letters demanding the rehiring of MacLean. Heck, even the show's sponser, Labatt's Breweries, weighed in, publicly expressing disappointment and their desire for MacLean to return.

Sensitive as they are to the needs of the Canadian viewing public, the network quickly rushed back to the negotiating table with Don Meehan, MacLean's agent, and within hours, a new contract was in place, ensuring the return of the popular host.

Brilliant work on the CBC's part to gauge public reaction to the possibility of Don Cherry's foil not returning to his HNIC duties.

Sure, MacLean is known for his bad puns, waggling eyebrows, and puffball interview techniques. Yes, he is seen by some as nothing more than an straight man for Cherry's antics during their first period "Coach's Corner" segments.

And yes, there are those in the print media who reek of jealousy over MacLean's role as HNIC host, even to the point of writing entire columns over how his contract negotiations weren't newsworthy.

But the CBC executives obviously didn't want to be swayed by professional pettiness or their own smugness, such is their high degree of intelligence, they of the genuises who bring so much high-quality programming to Canada.

No, they figured it would be wise to let the Canadian viewing public, the millions of die-hard hockey fans across the nation, decide MacLean's fate.

So programming exec Nancy Lee, a spitting image clone of Liberal MP Sheila Copps without the braying voice, announces MacLean's negotiations have fallen through and he won't be back, then sits back and waits for the "you've got mail" icons to pop up.

I mean, it had to have been a deliberate ploy by the CBC. After all, no intelligent network honchoes would be so stupid as to get cheap with one of the most popular figures in Canadian sports broadcasting, right?

End result: MacLean gets his new deal, HNIC keeps it's popular host, and the CBC comes out smelling like a rose, with their reputation intact as wise and sage broadcasters of fine Canadian programming, who are tuned in the the needs of their viewers.

A CAREER IN JEOPARDY.

When the news broke, it came as no surprise. In fact, it felt inevitable.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Theoren Fleury, who's been in a much-publicized battle with alcoholism, re-admitted himself to rehab this past week, in turn earned an indefinite suspension from the NHL for breaking one of the rules of it's substance-abuse policy.

Since the start of the 2001-02 season, Fleury has been an emotional, unpredictable timebomb. His erractic, often irrational antics, in which he would lash out suddenly at opponents, on-ice officials and even a team mascot, cost him continued employment with the New York Rangers, who decided this past summer not to pick up the option year of his contract.

The Blackhawks, desperate to replace the offensive gap left by departed former captain Tony Amonte, out-bid the Phoenix Coyotes for Fleury's services, hoping a change of venue and playing for a former head coach he respected in Brian Sutter would benefit both the mercurial winger and themselves.

Now, with Fleury suffering a relapse, the 'Hawks are facing criticism from some fans for taking a chance on him, even though the club doesn't have to pay his salary during the time he's suspended.

Some of the nicer comments found on hockey message boards basically asked the same question: "What did the 'Hawks think they were doing, taking a chance on an alcoholic?"

These, and the more profane, stupid and often badly-spelled remarks come from unsympathetic types who, if a mirror were to be held up to them, would reveal character warts as bad, if not worse, than Fleury's.

Of course, Fleury didn't help his case with his statements leading up to his return to rehab. When word came he'd gone missing from a Blackhawks practice, the media automatically brought up his battle with the bottle.

When Fleury resurfaced to explain his absence (an illness of a family member had "thrown him for a loop"), he took the press to task for assuming the worst, petulantly reminding the press he was battling a disease, and was appalled when they assumed the worst.

Yet, two days later, the media's suspicisions were confirmed when the announcement of Fleury's return to rehab was announced.

The Blackhawks organization put on a bold face, proclaiming their support for Fleury and their hope he'd make a successful return from his latest bout with the bottle.

Doubtless there are many Blackhawks who feel that way, but let's face facts here, they are probably wondering what the hell they're going to do if Fleury cannot return to their lineup this season. If he does return, they're also probably wondering how effective a player he'll be. They'll also wonder if another relapse is waiting to happen. There may be some who are wondering if this isn't just another milepost charting what appears to be the inevitable downfall of Fleury's playing career.

Many hockey followers - fans and media - sympathize with Fleury and wish him the best of luck. There are also those - some ugly and some just plain unsympathetic - who don't see Fleury's addiction as a disease, but rather as a weakness, and a controllable one at that,

These folks feel Fleury has one helluva nerve to be acting the way he is. After all, here's a guy who's getting paid millions of dollars every year to play a child's game; a guy who has won a Stanley Cup, enjoyed 50-goal seasons and basked in the adulation of millions. He's got it all, they say, so why is he pissing it away?

While alcoholism is called a disease by the medical profession, it isn't a traditional one in comparison to AIDS or cancer, where the afflicted person cannot control what is happening to them. It is one that can be controlled, but only if the alcoholic wants to control it.

That has led some to believe it isn't a disease at all, but a weakness of character. That's the opinion of Sean Morley, an articulate pro wrestler who discussed Fleury's situation on the TSN talk show "Off the Record". Morley contends it's an addiction, which in turn is a weakness and could therefore be controllable. It's an opinion shared by others I've spoken to on the subject.

But again, therein lies the problem, for Fleury and other alcoholics, for anyone who has an addiction. It may be controllable, but it's up to the addict to decide they want to control it.

As human beings, we all suffer, to various degrees, from different types of addiction. Alcohol. Tobacco. Drugs. Caffeine. Gambling. Junk food. Shopping. Adrenelin. All are controllable, when we know our limits. All are treatable, if we truly want to be healed.

In Fleury's case, he may genuinely want to be healed, but the desire to follow through has been lacking.

These have been trying times for "Little Big Man" in recent years. He's played for a moribund NY Rangers team that never got better during his tenure with them. He faced criticism from an unforgiving New York press when he failed to improve the club. His marriage has fallen apart, and let's not forget the doubts about his character from Canadian hockey fans and press in the weeks leading up to the 2002 Winter Olympics.

In addition, there was his father's own battle with drink during his childhood, the spectre of playing Junior Hockey for convicted sex offender Graham James (fortunately for Fleury, he wasn't one of James's victims, but questions about how much Fleury knew of his coach's offenses have dogged him), and a child from a early relationship he's had limited contact with since leaving Calgary.

Much of this, along with his attempts to come to grips with his drinking problem, undoubtedly led to much of the loose-cannon antics we saw from Fleury during his troubled 2001-02 hockey season.

Fleury apparently had a drinking problem for years, dating back to his days as a Calgary Flame. However, I can't help but wonder if leaving the Stampede City didn't accelerate his problem, taking something that may have been manageable and turning it into the proverbial monkey on his back.

During his playing days in Calgary, Fleury, along with former Flame Lanny McDonald and pro wrestler Bret "Hitman" Hart", was one of that's city's most popular sports figures. They were darlings of the local press and worshipped by the local sports fans. Even those Calgarians who didn't follow sports knew who Fleury was. Living in his dream-house in Southwestern Calgary, he was only a few hours drive away from his parents, and was active in local charities and community activities.

He was loved in Calgary, a small-town boy from Saskatchewan who played larger than his dimunitive stature; a late round draft pick underdog who beat the odds and rose to NHL stardom. A talented speedster who never shied away from the rough stuff, with his gap-toothed grin as proof of how much he loved the game.

If his drinking was a problem during those ten years (1989-1999) in Calgary, they weren't apparent. They certainly didn't translate to his performance on the ice, as Fleury was perennially in the top ten in team scoring, seven times leading the club in that category.

What may have pushed Fleury's problem over the edge was his messy departure from Calgary during the 1998-99 season. The guy who once asked, "How many more millions do I need anyway?" when signing what would be his last contract with the Flames in 1996 apparently wanted many more millions, far more than what the small-market Canadian team could afford.

Rather than lose him for nothing, the Flames instead chose to deal Fleury to the Colorado Avalance in exchange for picks and prospects. Flames fans never forgave him, as overnight Fleury went in their eyes from a local hero to a greedy, spoiled athlete who turned his back on them.

When Fleury returned to Calgary several weeks later as a member of the Avalanche to face his former team, he was booed mercilessly by the Flames faithful. He was clearly shaken by this and vented his anger at this treatment to the press.

Since then, it's been a steady decline for Fleury. He wasn't the major factor the Avs hoped he would be during the playoffs that season, even missing a key game against the Dallas Stars with what was called "the flu", but which has since been suspected by some in the press to be a hangover.

Cast aside by the Avs upon his reaching UFA status, Fleury was shocked to find that no Western Conference club would sign him. Reluctantly, he signed with the Rangers, the only team willing to pony up the $7 million plus per season he and his agent felt was his "market value".

From there came the disappointing seasons with the Rangers, the unexpected admission into rehab, the erratic behaviour upon returning to action, the questions about his character upon his selection to Team Canada, and finally, the release from his contract by the Rangers.

During the past off-season, Fleury and his agent, Don Baizley, took the unusual tack of waiting until August to entertain contract discussions with other clubs. Baizley explained his client merely wanted to rest and let the hot July free agent market cool off in order to determine who might have the most interest in his services.

Sounded plausible, but instead it now turns out, according to a Toronto Sun article, that Fleury had suffered another relapse. Not a major one, but serious enough to necessitate a quiet return to rehab.

One is left to wonder if Fleury might have benefitted from staying in Calgary, although given today's NHL salary market, that was obviously unlikely. Perhaps a second, prolonged return to rehab could have been avoided if he'd taken the Coyotes offer (after all, how many more millions does he need, right?) to play for the man he most admires in hockey (Coyotes co-owner Wayne Gretzky) in Phoenix, where Fleury also maintains a residence.

I'm told that one of the main keys to overcoming any addiction is a strong support group. Perhaps Fleury would've had that support in Calgary or Phoenix. Obviously, he wasn't getting it in New York, where the Rangers tended to look the other way during Fleury's freakouts. Perhaps a more stable environment, like the one he left behind in Calgary, would've not only controlled his addiction, but possibly would've saved his marriage and avoided putting his career at risk.

It's difficult for most hockey fans to understand why a man in Fleury's position, who is financially set for life, who get's to play a sport for a living, who has millions of fans who love him, who has the respect of his peers, who seemingly has it all, could self-destruct in such a manner.

We'll never know, as we tend to worship fame and money and power in our society as the balm of all problems.

One thing is certain, and that's the fact rich and famous people cannot avoid the pitfalls that ensnare those of us who are just plain folk. Indeed, their foibles become all the more notable because of who they are. Their lives are under a microscope that thankfully the rest of us will never be under, thus their frailties and faults are that much more magnified.

By the same token, however, entertainment celebrities such as Fleury have to understand that, by the very nature of their professions, their private lives are going to be under public scrutiny. They're entitled to their privacy, but when their private problems spill out into erractic behaviour in their professional lives, they're going to be commented on.

Sure, they're only human beings, and they have the same frailties and strengths as the rest of us. But by the nature of their jobs, they have to accept the fact their private lives are very limited. They're in professions that draw attention to themselves, that scream "hey, look at me! Look what I can do!" Once you draw attention to yourself, people less talented than you aren't going to stop watching what you can do, because they wanna see what you'll do next. Such is the curse of the show-off, which really, all entertainers ultimately are.

Celebrities may not like the attention paid to their private lives, but in this day and age of over-saturated media coverage, they must understand they're going to be on public view all the time. We all pay a price for whatever success we achieve in life.

Fleury's been in the public eye since his rookie season nearly 14 years ago. He knows full well that, no matter how justified he may feel regarding speculations about his personal life, the very nature of his job means personal problems become public ones. Complaining about that publicly isn't going to change it. In fact, it'll come across as whining.

Ultimately, Fleury must finally face that he's teetering on the abyss. His reputation is battered. His marriage is in tatters. He's disappointed those close to him. His NHL career now hangs by a thread.

It is time for Fleury to stop lashing out at those who criticize or mock him. It's time for him to stop trying to find solace in liquor. It's time for him to come to grips with his life and realize that he can't solve or hide his problems through booze.

He may not be able to put right everything that's gone wrong because of his drinking, but there's still time to salvage his career, his dignity, and the respect of his family and friends.

Most importantly, there's still time to save his life. In the end, that's all that matters.

 

OPENING WEEK WONDERS.

*****

There's nothing quite like the opening week of the National Hockey League regular season. Fans and pundits, bored from months of inactivity and seemingly endless summer speculations. Finally, the game is on, a new season begins, and hopes of followers of all NHL teams springs eternal.

The euphoria will soon wear off, of course, as everyone settles into the grind of an interminably long 82-game schedule stretching from October to April. Still, for a few weeks, the new NHL season will bring about the type of excitement in hockey fans one would normally see in small children during Christmas holidays.

Opening week - indeed, the first month of the season - springs surprises that few predicted or expected. Usually by the time the mid-season blues arrive, however, most of these surprises fizzle out, leading to something of a let-down for those who hoped or believed they would last through the season.

Having followed the NHL as a fan for over thirty seasons and as a writer for the last five, I'm rather jaded when it comes to opening week/month wonders. Sure, a doormat team bolting off to a winning record may perk my interest, but I fully expect them to crash back to earth by December. Similarly, when a Cup contender begins the season around the .500 mark, I don't get excited or muse if this could mean the end of that team's long-time dominance in the NHL.

Ok, that's not quite true, I used to do that,and yes, once in a while, a previously unheralded team or players strong start will last the entire season. That being said, seeing most of these things rarely pan out tends to make me jaded. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

The same goes for players who, until the new season began, were considered average players who went almost unnoticed. For every young player who suddenly bursts upon the scene, there's a dozen who saw fast starts fizzle into nothing.

No, when I see last year's Cup Finalist struggle out of the gate, I prefer to wait until the 25-game mark before suggesting this team may be in trouble. Ditto the doormat who looks like a world-beater in October.

Even then, I'll still hedge my bets and play the wait-and-see game until mid-season, which is usually the best time to gauge the wind regarding a club's or player's situation heading into the second half.

Still, there's no denying that, with all the anticipation - good or bad - heaped on teams during the off-season, the unexpected twists that emerge early makes for some interesting chatter amongst fans and media.

Here, then, is a look at the major opening week wonders of the 2002-03 season. Mark them carefully in your 2003 dayplanner under April 6th, when this season ends. It'll be fun - or heartbreaking - to look back upon this to see how everything finally turned out!

*****

The Lightning and Wild bolt from the starting gate: For long-suffering Bolts fans, they're clinging to the hope that, this time, their oft-mocked club has finally risen from the dead (like the 2001-02 NY Islanders) to become a legitimate playoff contender. Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin continuing his usual strong play is no surprise. The real story thus far is how well off-season acquisition Ruslan Fedotenko has clicked with former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier.

Most observers believed giving up a high draft pick for Fedotenko was a mistake at the June draft, but thus far he's meshed well with Lecavalier, whom Lightning fans believe must finally achieve his break-through season if the Bolts are to be successful this seasonm.

So far, so good. Fedetenko is making Lightning GM Jay Feaster look like a genius, while Lecavalier had a strong pre-season, which has carried over into the first week of the regular season.

Skeptics believe it's only a matter of time before Fedotenko struggles and Lecavalier goes into another prolonged bout of inconsistency, but for fans of a perennial cellar-dweller that been the butt of cruel jokes for far too long like the Lightning, they believe - almost desperately - that these two are for real.

As for the Wild, they continue their building process from expansion club with no hope of reaching the playoffs to a respectable team that may be ready to contend for the playoffs.

Two big reasons for the Wild's fast start are the continued improvement of the "Super Slovak" Marion Gaborik, and the superb goaltending of Manny Fernandez.

Gaborik had a terrific sophomore year in 2001-02, which saw him pot over 30 goals and 60-plus points. He's the best young player most hockey fans outside of Minnesota aren't aware of. Gaborik has picked up where he left off last season, and it looks as though he'll be serving notice there's a superstar in the making in Minnesota.

Still, the Wild remain lacking in depth throughout the roster, and Gaborik- along with veteran linemate Andrew Brunette and smooth puckhandling blueliner Filip Kuba - cannot carry the load by themselves. The Wild needs strong goaltending, and thus far into the new season, they're getting it from Fernandez.

It was Fernandez whom GM Doug Risebrough tabbed as their future star between the pipes when he obtained him from the Dallas Stars. However, last season was a huge disappointment for Fernandez, who was outplayed by a journeyman backup in Dwayne Roloson, sparking concerns if Fernandez had what it took to carry the load as the Wild's starter.

It's early yet, but thus far, Fernandez has been outstanding, with his recent defeat of the Stars thanks in part to his lightning-quick glove hand. Wild fans will be hoping he can carry his opening week heroics throughout the rest of the year.

*****

The Hurricanes, Islanders, Avalanche and Sharks stumble: The Carolina Hurricanes obviously are in the grips of the dreaded "Cup Finals hangover" that plagues all over-achievers who make it to the big Spring dance. From their goaltending to the defence corps to their offence and special teams, the 'Canes have been terrible, leading to grumbling amongst their new-found legion of fans.

The NY Islanders, meanwhile, are missing the presence of team captain Michael Peca, who remains sidelined until possibly mid-season as he recovers from knee surgery.Given the Isles have plenty of talent in their roster, the absence of Peca shouldn't be affecting them as badly as it has thus far. Their sub-par play this season had led to comparisons of those awful Islanders clubs of the not-so-distant past.

The Colorado Avalanche's slow start is due to an disturbing lack of offence, surprising considering notable scoring stars like Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay are in their lineup. It's brought about doom-and-gloom commentary in the Denver press, predicting only a week into the season of the sun setting on the Avs.

Finally, in San Jose, the Sharks are struggling to find ways to win. Their woes are self-imposed by their front office, as management continues to dicker with their best goalie (Evgeny Nabokov) and defenceman (Brad Stuart) over new contracts. The slow start could tilt in those players favour as negotiations continue.

With the talent on those respective rosters, however, it's far too early to predict the demise of these clubs. I'll be very surprised if they're still struggling by month's end.

*****

Theodore and Iginla struggle. The two best players in the NHL last season, Montreal's Jose Theodore and Calgary's Jarome Iginla, have raised eyebrows with sub-par performances in this season's first week.

Theodore, the Hart, Crozier and Vezina winner last season, gave up only 1 goal in the Canadiens 4-1 season-opening win over the NY Rangers, but was shelled for 12 goals over the next two games. This prompted the Habs to go with backup Jeff Hackett against the defending Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, and while Theodore watched from the bench, Hackett kicked out 33 shots as the Canadiens surprised the Wings with a 3-2 victory. It's led to some Habs supporters complaining Theodore is over-rated and over-paid, with some wing-nuts even suggesting the Canadiens try to trade him and stick with Hackett as their starter

Meanwhile, Iginla - the Art Ross, Richard and Pearson award winner and runner-up to Theodore for the Hart - potted 3 points in his first four games, but he wasn't the dominant offensive force as he was a year earlier. With the Flames precarious playoff hopes resting on Iginla matching or exceeding his stats of last season, concerns are being raised amongst Calgary fans of Iginla going soft since he got his rich contract in the off-season.

Habs and Flames fans need to step off the bridge they may be thinking of hurling themselves off of and draw a breath. Theodore and Iginla are two rising superstars in this game, the vanguard of the next generation of stars who will take over as Patrick Roy and Jaromir Jagr look to wind down their careers. Yes, they got big, rich contracts. Yes, they're starting slowly. But remember, gang, there are 82 games in the season, and we've barely scratched the surface so far.

Save your worries until the 20-game mark of the season. If they haven't rebounded into form at that point, then you can start to worry. And if they're playing crap by mid-season, then you can look for that bridge.

*****

Remember all the articles in the press that wrote off the Buffalo Sabres a month ago? The ones that looked at the club's shaky financial situation and the lack of offensive punch over the last two seasons, and predicted they had "no chance" of making the playoffs?

The Sabres convincing 5-1 and 6-1 victories in their first two games against the Islanders and Canadiens had sportswriters worried about eating their words.

But wait! The Sabres crashed to earth with an uninspired 3-0 loss to an Chicago Blackhawks club missing Theo Fleury and Eric Daze, then followed it up with an ugly tie against the NY Rangers.

OK, they're 2-1-1-0 after four games, but which is the real Sabres? The fast-skating, hard-hitting juggernaut of the first two games? The flat club that mailed it in against Chicago? Or the one that battled back from a two-goal deficit against the Rangers, but couldn't hold the lead?

*****

Aren't the Pittsburgh Penguins supposed to be so weak in depth they're forced to give contracts to washed-up players like Alexandre Daigle? Isn't their defence supposed to have more holes than swiss cheese? Wasn't this season supposed to be one of the worst in Penguins history, so bad not even a healthy Mario Lemieux could save them?

It certainly appeared to be the truth when they opened their season with a disgraceful 6-0 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But the Pens then rolled off three straight victories, which included garnering a measure of revenge against the Leafs by defeating them several days later in a rematch.

Best of all, the Pens have been led by Lemieux, who potted ten points in those three victories and found himself atop the points list after four games. Naturally, this is leading to speculation that Lemieux could win the scoring title this season, in turn becoming the oldest player to ever win the Art Ross.

Not to rain on the parade, Pens fans, but it's still too early to think your club will prove the critics wrong. Not that I wouldn't be unhappy if they did, as I've long been a big fan of Lemieux, but I'm still concerned over the lack of defensive and offensive depth .

Let's see how well they hold up when they go up against more of the tougher clubs throughout the league.

 

SPECTOR'S ANNUAL TALES OF HOCKEY HORROR.

It's that time of year again, folks! When the air grows colder, the tree become bare, and ghosts and goblins rise up and walk among us. Or whatever costumes it is the kids like to wear on Halloween!

As the scariest day of the year approaches, it's time once again to offer up more tales of horror, NHL-style!

*****

Our first offering comes from the city of Montreal, whose once-vaunted club, Les Canadiens, appeared to have turned the corner on three long years of misery. They not only ended a non-playoff drought, but also staged a first-round upset of the Boston Bruins before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games in Round two.

Optimism ran high in Montreal during the summer, thanks to a Hart-and-Vezina winning season by goaltender Jose Theodore, who all but carried the often over-matched Habs into the playoffs. With team captain Saku Koivu successfully recovered from cancer, potential break-through seasons looming for Richard Zednik and Andrei Markov, the acqusition of veterans Mariusz Czerkawski and Randy McKay and the return of Doug Gilmour, Habs fans could scarcely contain their excitement awaiting the start of the 2002-03 season.

Alas, eight games in, the Canadiens lurched, rather than leapt, from the starting gate, posting an average 3-3-2 record. There are several reasons for the slow start. Only Koivu and Zednik have contributed regularly in the offensive category, while Czerkawski, Gilmour and Donald Audette have yet to find their scoring touch. Their defence once again has been shoddy, with Montreal outshot in all but two games thus far.

Most ominous, however, is the alarming sub-par play of Theodore, whom the club ponied up a sizeable chunk of change to re-sign in the off-season. After winning his first game of the season 4-1 over the Rangers, Theodore has been shelled for 21 goals in his next four outings, including two 6-2 losses to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Fortunately for the Habs, they have veteran Jeff Hackett to step in and take over for Theodore, but no one knows for how much longer. Hackett is in the final year of his contract, and many believe - including Hackett himself - the veteran will be dealt at some point this season.

The game plan starting the season was for "Hack" to see 15-20 games of action, with Theodore carrying the bulk of the work. Now, however, with Theodore struggling, the Canadiens face a dilemma.

Do they shop Hackett now and hope to get a return that'll help them in other areas of the roster? Or do they play Hackett more, hanging onto him longer, and hope Theodore can get back to form?

Most terrifying of all, Montreal fans and media are wondering if Theodore isn't the second coming of Jim Carey, another netminder who won the Vezina, only to see his play drop off significantly to the point where, five years after his rookie season, he was no longer playing in the NHL.

Is Theodore bound to inherit the mantle of goaltending greatness in Montreal, following the path of Vezina, Durnan, Plante, Worsley, Dryden and Roy? Or was last season a flash in the pan?

Canadiens fans are hoping for the former, but are secretly worried he may be the latter. A truly scary situation for a team desperately trying to return to it's former glory!

*****

Toronto Maple Leafs fans would ordinarily chortle over the woes of their long-time rival from Montreal, if it weren't for the fact their club is playing worse than the struggling Habs.

Since their return to respectability and Cup contention in 1998-99, Leafs fans have dreamed each new season might bring an end to the second-longest Cup drought in the NHL.

After coming close last season by going to the Eastern Conference finals, the Leafs lost starting goalie and fan favourite Curtis Joseph to free agency. They signed Ed Belfour to replace the popular "Cujo", but there were doubts "the Eagle" still had what it took to carry a club to the Cup finals.

Discontent amongst Leafs fans further simmered over the summer as top dollar free agents like Bobby Holik, Tony Amonte and Darius Kasparaitis spurned offers from Toronto to sign with other clubs.

With overpaid, washed-up veterans on the roster like Robert Reichel, Jonas Hoglund, Mikael Renberg and Jyrki Lumme, and the mutterings over Belfour, Leafs fans worried their club may be past their "best-before" date.

It appeared the fears of a letdown were unfounded when the Leafs kicked off the season with a 6-0 pasting of the Pittsburgh Penguins. But to the horror of their fans, the Leafs sank into mediocrity for the rest of the month. The low-water mark were losses to a Bruins club ravaged by injury, a tie with the hated Habs, a sound thrashing at the hands of the youngster-laden Florida Panthers, and a last-minute loss at the hands of the New York Rangers. By the last weekend of October, the Maple Leafs were in an unaccustomed spot: the bottom of the Northeast Division.

The fears once muttered are now spoken much louder by the Leafs faithful, booing their team off the ice after their uninspired performances. This hasn't heard since the dark days of the Harold Ballard regime.

That's a scary bit of deja vu the Maple Leafs don't wish to revisit. But if their struggles through the next month, the ghosts of moribund Leafs clubs past could hang over the current bunch like a pall of gloom.

*****

Speaking of revisiting past horrors, we turn now to the New York Islanders, whom this time a year ago were on the road to their first winning season - and playoff appearance - since 1994.

Last year's version was powered by Alexei Yashin, Mike Peca and Chris Osgood. They provided the once-woeful Isles with a mixture of offensive skill, talented grit and first-line goaltending not seen on the Island since the Reagan years.

With their many years of frustration as a league laughing-stock seemingly behind them, Islanders fans looked to the off-season in hopes of their club obtaining additional depth to carry them to the next level.

Unfortunately, the dollars simply weren't there this time as in the previous summer, as the Isles scarcely making any signficant moves. While a little disturbing, the Islanders and their fans were confident they still had plenty of depth to improve upon last season's success.

Sadly, that hasn't been the case. The Islanders record is .500, not bad considering the horror shows of years past, but much more was expected. Yashin's offense has been inconsistent, Osgood's goaltending has been shaky, while Peca remains out of the lineup until December, courtesy of a playoff cheapshot to his knee provided by Toronto's Darcy Tucker.

Naturally, it's too early for Islanders fans to panic, but that hasn't stopped a lot of them from complaining over the less-than-stellar start to this season. With their psyches still smarting from the lean years, the fear of returning to doormat status remains very real on the Island.

*****

Of course, some horror stories never seem to change, as the Islanders rivals from Broadway are once again demonstrating.

As in previous seasons, The Rangers once again sport one of the highest payrolls in the NHL. In fact, as we've seen before, they're top of the heap in that regard. That's about all they're tops in.

For the Rangers, again, went out and spent a lot of money on high-priced free agent talent, in hopes of bringing to an end a post-season drought that is now five years long.

Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis joined other notable high-priced Rangers like Mark Messier, Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros (the latter two obtained by trades) in the off-season. Such a star-studded roster, complimented by Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Petr Nedved, should be running roughshod over the rest of the league.

However, as we've repeatedly seen since 1997-98, no matter how many big-money players the Rangers bring in, they still cannot improve beyond .500. As of this writing, they're 2-4-2 for 6 points in 8 games.

The problem is obvious. While the Rangers can certainly score, too many of their players are either unable -or unwilling - to play the defensive game. The end result is their own goal becomes a target in a turkey shoot, as Richter and young backup Dan Blackburn bravely try to staunch an offensive onslaught. Their attempts, more often than not, prove futile.

When Glen Sather took over as GM in 2000, it was believed he would turn the Rangers away from investing heavily in free agency and trading for high-priced help and turn instead to stocking up and developing with promising youngsters, using patience to build rather than going for the quick fix.

But Sather has done precisely what his predecessor, Neil Smith, did, going the route of big money and instant gratification. Whether it's Sather's own doing or pressure from ownership going down this path is irrelevant. The fact remains the Rangers braintrust has learned nothing, and are no better off than when they first began this futile exercise.

Some Rangers fans reading this will write in and complain I'm "anti-Rangers". Some will say, as I've heard in the past, that Rangers fans "can't wait for a winner".

All I can say is, the proof of the continued futility of the pursuit of marquee names is out there on display once again.

It's been five years and counting. The scary part is, you wound waiting for a winner after all, and at this pace, unless this bunch can get their act together, you'll be waiting again for a long time.

*****

Although they were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season, the Atlanta Thrashers were looking toward this year with some optimism.

Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk were the best rookies in the NHL last year and looked forward to better sophomore campaigns. While the budget remained tight, GM Don Waddell did some wheeling and dealing and would up with experienced vets like Slava Kozlov, Shawn McEachern, and Richard Smehlik. In addition, they re-signed promising goaltender Milan Hnilicka, who posted a .908 save percentage despite facing an endless barrage of shots. They knew they weren't playoff contenders, but the belief was they would take a significant step in the right direction.

Instead, the steps have been backwards, and the results so ugly they're downright horrifying. Sure, Heatley and Kovalchuk continue their brilliance, but they're the only two things worth shouting about for the Thrashers, who have yet to win a game this season.

It's led to rumours, denied by management but still hanging in the air like a foul odour from an opened grave, that head coach Curt Fraser might get the axe if things don't improve soon.

*****

But Halloween horror isn't limited solely to Eastern Conference clubs. Indeed, there are teams from the West facing horrors every bit as terrifying and upsetting as their counterparts from the East.

Take for example the Edmonton Oilers. A club possessing a top-ten starting netminder in Tommy Salo, a strong blueline anchored by Janne Niinimaa, Eric Brewer and Jason Smith, and plenty of speed and scoring in Mike Comrie, Ryan Smyth, Mike York and Anson Carter.

It was frustrating for the Oilers to miss the playoffs last season after posting up 92 points, which would've qualified them if they played in the East, but wasn't enough in the much-tougher West. It was believed the Oilers would be champing at the bit to improve this season and avoid any prolonged slumps of the type that did them in last year.

Instead, the Oilers have been as flat as an oil-slick on the ice, only not as slick. With only 1 win and 4 measly points in 7 games, they inhabit the cellar of the Northwest, and are as of this writing, posting the second worst record in the Western Conference.

What's led to this early disaster? Average goaltending, shoddy defence and a lack of offence. It would be understandable if the Oilers were a young team like the Thrashers, or an overaged and overpaid group like the Rangers.

This is a team, however, with most of it's key players hitting their prime. And that's what's so frightening.

For as much as there is great young talent on the Oilers, they're lacking the one quality that will be needed to compete in the West: depth. It's missing at centre on their second line, it's missing in the lower end of the defence corps, and it's missing at it's checking lines.

For all the talk of giving more ice time to kids like Ales Hemsky and grinders like Georges Laraque, it's become unnervingly apparent that neither is ready to step up and fill the roles required to a suitable level.

If this continues, the Oilers could once again become the best team to miss the playoffs, truly an awful thought for their fans.

*****

Expectations were high in San Jose going into this season. After years of inconsistent seasons and coming up short in the playoffs, the Sharks were considered a club that was ready, finally, to take their place amongst the elite in the West.

Unfortunately, Sharks players and fans never counted on the frightening short-sightedness of their ownership and management.

Why would their front office hamstring their club's hopes for a good start by beginning the season without their best goaltender and top defenceman because because over the niggling details of new contracts?

The Sharks forced Evgeny Nabakov and Brad Stuart to stage holdouts to get what they were seeking in new deals. Their demands weren't extravagant, but the team braintrust believed they could force the two to cave in once they saw their teammates could play very well without them.

Turned out the joke was on the braintrust, as the Sharks got off to a sputtering start with Nabokov and Stuart. Finally, GM Dean Lombardi saw so much ugliness he couldn't stand it anymore and gave Nabokov what he wanted.

Stuart remains on the outs, but given how the course of a regular season brings about injuries of the type that decimated the Sharks blueline corps a year ago, don't be surprised if they agree to Stuart's terms in the near future.

Which begs the question: why did the Sharks front office stage this silly farce of protracted negotiations with Nabokov and Stuart in the first place?

A scary question indeed!

*****

Meanwhile, in Calgary, the early returns on the Flames 2002-03 season aren't very good, which does not bode well for their ending their seven year absence from the playoffs.

The circus of horror began with the on-again, off-again trade demands of disgruntled centre Marc Savard. One week he wanted a trade, the next, he was willing to come back and try again to play head coach Greg Gilbert's way.

Next up was the ineffective play of Rob Niedermayer, who is doing nothing to dispell the long-time criticism of his efforts by his critics. The change of scenery from Florida to the Alberta foothills has done nothing to improve his game.

Then there's the average goaltending of Roman Turek, who is making Flames fans believe their club overpaid to sign this guy after they deal for him. Turek has not returned to the hot form he displayed early last season, when the Flames were at the time one of the hottest teams in the league. Coincidentally, that was right before Turek signed his big new contract.

All of this pales, however, with concerns regarding Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy's "slow start".

Although the stats indicate they're roughly at the same pace offensively as they were at this time last season, the belief is very strong that Iginla and Conroy, two-thirds of the Flames first line, are now invisible men, not making as much of an appearance as they did a year ago.

If it weren't for the deal that landed them Chris Drury and Stephane Yelle, Flames fans would have as little to cheer about this season as in season's past.

If the Flames can't turn it around over the coming weeks, the real terror is they'll continue to be a one-line team full of unfulfilled talent, looking at spending another spring on the golf course.

*****

Finally, there's the Nashville Predators, whose fans have taken more to singing the blues than country tunes.

They had no wins after their first five games. Sure, most of the losses were close, hard-fought contests, but in the end, a loss is a loss, and pointing out how well you played in defeat is cold comfort.

Scoring is up but the defensive play is struggling. With the off-season pledge of ownership to offer season ticket refunds should the Preds fail to make the playoffs a real possibility, there's now talk of GM David Poile and/or head coach Barry Trotz facing a truly horrifying prospect: unemployment by Christmas.

The Predators actually have a lot of good young talent on their roster, but nearly five years after joining the league, they've progressed little in terms of player development. Meanwhile, another expansion rival, the Minnesota Wild, have gotten off to a quick start this season, keeping pace with the top clubs in the West, giving rise to hopes of a potential post-season appearance scarcely three years after joining the league.

That's leaving Predators followers to wonder if their team isn't destined for another five years of wallowing at the bottom of the standings. A truly horrible thought!

Happy Halloween!!